A VISIT TO Chilli Fagara is not for the faint of tongue. Tongue? What tongue? By the time I've foolishly cracked and consumed my fourth piece of fiery crab I can no longer feel that floppy organ intended to communicate tastes to my brain. I'm inclined to say the same of my lips, except I can feel that exquisite throbbing that informs me that they've tumefied to resemble Angelina Jolie's. Sadly (and especially after this meal), my body hasn't received that memo.
Fair enough, Angelina Jolie probably wouldn't be caught perched on a wooden chair, slender hands enveloped in disposable plastic gloves picking crab meat fibres out of finicky shells, wiping beads of sweat off her face with her forearm (er, elbow), eyes shimmering with unshed tears, cheeks puffy and pink.
She wouldn't, but I certainly would – and proudly so.
But Chilli Fagara doesn't thrust you into this situation so much as gently lower you into the simmering heat. A gentle legato instead of a sharp staccato –although, make no mistake, when the peak of the crescendo is reached, it almost doesn't matter how you got there.
It's a fitting analogy for how this eight-year-old restaurant has fared, too. Born quietly on one of Soho's sleepier slopes, Chilli Fagara chugged along as the little Sichuan hole-in-the-wall that could. It gained popularity among the area's residents as well as destination diners, those adventurous gastronomic scouts who ploughed Soho for random restaurant finds (and were typically rewarded with mediocre impressions of far-flung cuisines along with above-average prices). With ghetto-fab chinoiserie as its guiding design principle and a friendly – not watered down – menu of piquant preparations to flaunt to friends and out-of-towners, Chilli Fagara soon became a cult favourite, if not a household name. The heat (pardon the pun) reached fever pitch when in 2010 it was awarded a Michelin star, a feat it has replicated in successive guides till today. Now, the compact hotspot enjoys brisk business on a nightly basis.
Owner Tracy Wong admits that the dishes are “authentic as possible, but with a little bit of edge. The flavours are very Sichuan, but maybe the spiciness is just a little toned down.” That “little bit” isn't anything to complain about, or to even notice, though canonical favourites lose a little bit of their appeal in translation on the menu, following the general formula of “chilli/spicy [insert name of protein] in spicy/chilli sauce”. But if you can read the Chinese names, the dishes make a lot more sense.
What seems generic in print comes pluckily to life in presentation. A trio of starters representing ma, la and tang – numbing, spicy and neutral, respectively – are served in stumpy Oriental goblets, delicately portioned but punching you in the face with flavour. Pork-belly slices in a garlic sauce with a hint of chilli (what'd I say about those names?) are inventively draped on a custom-built wooden rack that conjures laundry-line allusions, the pork-belly meat divided into paper-thin cross sections and alternated with speed-peeled cucumber. And the colours witnessed in the Mandarin fish with chilli sauce are enough to ignite an appetite like no other.
Wong opened Chilli Fagara along with her mother and brother, although she now runs the operation alone. The recipes are her mother's, who grew up in Chongqing and designed the original menu, as well as served as head chef during the restaurant's inception years. So while the food has all the flash and visual pretension necessary to please contemporary foodies and diningguide snobs alike, there's a healthy dollop of home and heart, a warmth that flows from handed-down recipes executed by chefs still trained personally by Mama Wong. The menu hasn't changed substantially since opening day – “We've added some new dishes, but mainly we try to make each dish better. Improve the tastes, refine it,” says Wong. That infused affection is as quintessential as the chillies thrown into the mix (which explains why, Chilli Fagara aside, some 90 percent of the city's favourite Sichuan restaurants are family-run private kitchens).
Speaking of those chillies, eight different types are stocked and plugged into various combinations to achieve the various levels of ma, la and tang, while also acting as chief visual harbinger of heat. In the sliced pork and cucumber with spicy garlic sauce, for example, the garnish is a single large chilli, signalling minimal piquancy; the Mandarin fish literally swims in a lava bath brimming with chopped peppers, its eyes glassy and morbid – a warning sign, certainly.
It's the Chilli Fagara-style crab that wreaks greatest havoc on my senses, the spiciness so vehement, so fanatical that it seems sometimes not worth continuing along this line between pain and pleasure. Western culinary wisdom might frown on this application and the way in which it almost obscures the natural sea flavour of the crab, but on closer inspection it draws out a sweetness unnoticed, necessitating an attention to each sliver and fibre of meat. But the fish has long been my favourite dish in the Sichuan repertoire, a perfectly poached canvas to soak up all the soup and spice, paired with the absolutely unique bouncy, chewy texture of potato glass noodles.
There is an element of masochism in the consumption of these dishes, an addiction perhaps equivalent to getting tattooed. In those first moments, it's an assault on your senses, followed by a searing blaze of pain. But once you pass that hump, there's a moment of transcendence that is bliss, a bliss that couldn't be earned without the trials of the moments before. And once you hit that sweet spot…you're one of us, now.
Maybe this all seems a little bit melodramatic. We're talking, of course, of a cuisine, and not a religion. But at meal's end, when a somewhat un-Sichuan chocolate ice cream is served, ostensibly to quell the heat, and I discover it's been injected with chilli particles in what was once considered a bizarre food-pairing trend, it's not the sweet or cool that I'm chasing, but that kiss of flames that I've only just left behind.